The students of Team Zephyr present their trophy after winning their category in this year’s Canadian CanSat Design Challenge. (Team Zephyr / Contributed)

Burnaby and Surrey students aim sky-high for international CanSat building competition

The high schoolers won their category in Canada's national meetup outside of Lethbridge, Alta., in April, which means they're headed to Italy for an international competition later this month.

By Curtis Seufert | June 7, 2022 |5:00 am

It can be quite the challenge to create a device that’s destined for the sky, let alone one that is no larger than your average pop can, is able to be dropped or even launched a kilometre high, and that gathers and transmits live temperature and atmospheric data on the way down.

So while a CanSat (short for can satellite) might be small in stature, designing and creating your own is no small feat. Nonetheless, it’s something that a team of high school students from Byrne Creek Community School in Burnaby and Fraser Heights in Surrey have managed to achieve.

Not only that, but the students of Team Zephyr, as they’re named, have been recognized as the best Canadian high schoolers in their category to do it this year. In April, they won the 2022 Canadian CanSat design challenge, a victory which has netted them a ticket to the European Space Agency’s International CanSat Competition in Italy later this month.

Timothy Cai is Team Zephyr’s team and hardware lead. He says that while the win came as somewhat of a surprise, it ultimately felt well-earned.

“We collected by far the most transmitted data out of any satellite out there,” Cai told Burnaby Beacon. “Sixty-six seconds worth of data over a 120-second plane.”

No CanSat has ever been reported to leave the atmosphere, but Cai notes that the goal of these competitions is more about demonstrating a well-rounded understanding of the aerospace, communications, and computer science technology that’s necessary to make these devices work.

“Surprisingly, the launch is not what is critical,” says Cai. “Everything else, from PLRs (pre-launch reports) to presentations, is all about proving our technical excellence as well as our scientific value.”

While showing your understanding of the science is what’s most important for CanSat competitions, having a great proof of concept certainly doesn’t hurt, either.

For Team Zephyr, their CanSat design is an open-air model whose payload includes a pressure, temperature and altitude sensor, a battery system, a parachute for safe descent, a GPS system, and an on-board computer designed by aviation electronics lead, Kentarou Howard.

CanSat
Team Zephyr’s CanSat design, shortly before being tested at this year’s national CanSat competition outside of Lethbridge, Alta, in April. (Team Zephyr / Contributed)

Howard is the lone representative from Burnaby on the team, and the only 11th grader in a group otherwise made up of senior students. While the other five team members had already gotten to know each other from school, Howard learned of the CanSat challenge through Cai, as the two were already “rocketry buddies.”

Howard says it’s hobbies like these that often draw students to learn about the CanSat challenge, and come in handy when putting together a team.

“A lot of us had experience in non-CanSat things,” says Howard. “Whether it be AI or web design… circuit board design or even [learning] how code is structured, a lot of that can be moved over into CanSat. We started off with a really good base.”

Another benefit of participating in CanSat competitions is learning how to bring your own skills and knowledge into a team environment.

Vhea He is one of the GPS technicians and outreach leads for the team, and says the experience she’s gained working with Team Zephyr will be greatly helpful for future collaborative work.

“Most of the stuff I’ve done beforehand, when it came to programming or designing some kind of project, was all very individual,” says He. “Being on this team really taught me how to contribute my technical skills to a team, which I feel like is important not just for this competition, but going into our careers as well.”

Throughout the design and development process, Team Zephyr members also presented their progress to other students and faculty at their schools.

Jessica Tang, also a GPS technician and outreach lead, led a presentation at a staff meeting at her school, mainly with the goal of getting teachers to pass down the information to students. But when Tang found the teachers and staff themselves getting excited about the project, it was a welcome side-effect.

“It shows that you don’t have to be young to get into something new,” says Tang. “I think it was a good experience, learning that if we tell people about this cool thing that we’re doing, people will be engaged and enthusiastic about it too.”

As for the international competition later this month, Team Zephyr will be facing off against more than 20 other national winners from across Europe. Beyond working to add a live video feed to the CanSat, the team says that, for the most part, they’re just going to take the same mindset as always: treating competition as an opportunity to come together, grow and learn.

“Our mindset for going into Italy is still the same as us going into the Canada one, where it’s for the experience,” says Tang. “We’re really excited to see what everyone else has built.”

Curtis Seufert

Curtis is a summer editorial intern with Burnaby Beacon.

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